New report reveals next steps for the alternative protein industry

A wooden bowl and spoon of mealworms

UKRI’s transforming food production (TFP) challenge has published its latest forward strategy report, Alternative proteins: identifying UK priorities.

The report, published in collaboration with Growing Kent and Medway:

  • highlights the demand for alternative protein sources
  • identifies the challenges facing the sector
  • details a roadmap for the future of the alternative proteins sector in the UK
  • represents a crucial first step in encouraging industry collaboration and promoting the scale up of alternative protein production.

Resilience, efficiency and sustainability

The TFP challenge, part of UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, is a £90 million programme, jointly funded by government and industry.

The challenge aims to improve resilience, efficiency and sustainability in the UK food sector through innovative and data-driven solutions.

As part of this, the TFP programme is working to strengthen the UK’s research and capabilities in the alternative protein supply chain.

The goal is to place the UK as a world leader within the sector.

Increasing demand

The sector is estimated to be worth $27 billion globally by 2027, also referenced in the recently announced Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs food strategy.

Due to increasing demand, there is an ever-growing need to produce protein sources for both human and animal consumption.

This therefore means the UK needs to strengthen its domestic food production in order to mitigate against future supply chain challenges.

Three priority sectors

The report highlights the three priority sectors where further investment and development need to be undertaken:

  • plant proteins: pulses, extracts from other plants, agri-food side streams etc.
  • fermentation: proteins from fermentation-based systems (based on algae, bacteria, fungi, or gas or energy-based systems), and cell culture technologies that are primarily developing lab meat products
  • novel systems: new aquaculture, insect proteins.

The UK’s plant-based food sector is largely dominated by imported materials, such as soya, and faces a number of challenges, including:

  • a lack of diverse protein sources
  • difficulty procuring the technology needed to extract protein efficiently and sustainably
  • overcoming negative social perceptions regarding the nutritional benefits.

Other forms of alternative protein have faced similar difficulties.

World leader

As it stands, the UK is a world leader in mycoprotein fermentation.

However, the report calls attention to how the demand for products currently exceeds supply capacities, with cultured lab grown meats also facing varied consumer perceptions.

This highlights the need to educate individuals on the nutritional benefits and the naturalistic qualities of these alternative proteins.

Impact of Brexit

The report also identifies the impact of a post-Brexit Britain.

With the UK leaving the EU, the alternative proteins sector now has an opportunity to:

  • diverge from the existing framework
  • simplify regulatory processes for fermentation products
  • enable a more agile system that will benefit those within food production
  • educate the wider public on their health benefits.

For novel forms of protein, such as insects and aquacultures, the need to overcome public perception and regulatory constraints is particularly key.

Accelerating research into the sector

Katrina Hayter, Challenge Director for UKRI’s TFP programme, said:

Currently, research into alternative proteins within the UK is organic and fragmented.

The industry faces challenges around scaling-up production and new product registration.

It is clear that support for integrated research and innovation is more important than ever, especially in helping the market meet growing consumer demand for healthy, sustainable and safe alternative proteins.

We hope this report, underpinned by a roadmap that describes opportunities for both manufacturers and start-ups, can help accelerate research into the sector and support green growth opportunities here in the UK.

Driving innovation

Dr Nicola Harrison, Programme Director for Growing Kent and Medway, who supported the delivery of the report, said:

With world-leading research facilities and technical specialists, the UK has the capability to drive innovation, both at pace and at scale, to capitalise on the rapid growth trajectory of the alternative proteins sector.

Optimising the UK’s potential will require a coordinated, interdisciplinary approach which fosters collaboration between industry and academia.

Access to a diverse range of funding and finance options will also play a critical role in exploring disruptive ideas and supporting collaborative research and development.

UKRI’s TFP challenge is delivered by Innovate UK and BBSRC.

Further information

About the TFP challenge

UKRI’s £90 million TFP programme is part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and aims to help the agricultural sector grow economically with less environmental impact.

The programme will set food production systems towards net zero emissions by 2040 by producing food in ways that are more efficient, resilient and sustainable.

It will accelerate the development and adoption of integrated precision approaches to improve productivity in agricultural systems.

The investment will be made over four years.

The programme will focus on the development, demonstration and adoption of data-driven systems and technologies to achieve a better approach to agricultural production and reduce emissions.

The remit includes both crop and farmed animal production, as well, as new production systems.

The long-term success of the challenge is dependent on a diverse range of farm businesses adopting new technologies and approaches.

About Growing Kent and Medway

Growing Kent and Medway is a world-class research, innovation, and enterprise cluster.

It connects businesses in the region to support innovation and to establish the area as a world-leader in sustainable horticultural food and drink production.

The programme brings together innovative growers and processors, scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs to stimulate research, innovation and business growth.

It invests in state-of-the-art infrastructure, collaborative research and innovation, and enterprise growth.

The programme is led by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (the UK’s largest horticultural research and development centre in East Malling, Kent).

Additional research and commercial partners include:

  • University of Greenwich
  • University of Kent
  • Locate in Kent
  • APS Group
  • Berry Gardens
  • Chapel Down
  • Geku Automation
  • Gusbourne
  • RH Group
  • Smurfit Kappa
  • Thanet Earth
  • The Kent and Medway Economic Partnership
  • Worldwide Fruit.

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About UKRI Strength in Places Fund

Led by UKRI, Strength in Places Fund is a competitive funding scheme that takes a place-based approach to research and innovation funding, to support significant local economic growth.

Top image:  Credit: ollo, E+ via Getty Images

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